1) Benítez battling for top-flight return
Rafael Benítez feels loved but it is hard to forget that 12 months ago he was preparing Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale for a season where Real Madrid ended up winning the Champions League long after the manager’s departure. Instead Benítez is at St James’ Park, readying Newcastle for the Championship and repeatedly saying he is excited about the challenge that awaits. Nothing short of an immediate return to the top flight will be accepted.
2) Burton and Clough: first stop Forest
A club that in 2009 were playing league matches against Histon and Grays Athletic (in the Conference) is now on a par with Newcastle and Aston Villa. Their extraordinary ascent to the Championship is thanks to the shrewd management of, most recently, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Nigel Clough along with the astuteness of the chairman, Ben Robinson, who has ensured the club with a 7,000-capacity ground lives within its means. Clough, who had managed the club until 2009, returned in December and has been rewarded with an opening-day trip to Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, where he spent nine years as a player and his father won two European Cups and a league title.
3) Northampton run without Wilder
It will be fascinating to see how the Cobblers fare in League One having won promotion at a canter. So much of last season’s title success was down to the manager, Chris Wilder, keeping a winning team focused during a period of unprecedented strife off the pitch but he has left for Sheffield United and Rob Page has come in from Port Vale. Matters in the background have been straightened out but how much of a blow will losing the manager be?
4) Blackpool: bloom or bust?
The Oystons remain in charge, much to the chagrin of the club’s supporters, and such is the discord at Bloomfield Road it is possible to imagine the club dropping out of the Football League six seasons after being in the top flight. Gary Bowyer has brought in plenty of new faces, though, and the squad looks well equipped for promotion. The new manager has said he can control only the playing side of things but must hope matters behind the scenes do not impede his work.
5) The return of Mighty Mariner
It has taken six years for Grimsby to battle their way back into the Football League. If one person deserves to be back on the professional stage more than any other it is surely their emotional mascot. Mighty Mariner hit the headlines last year when he celebrated a winning goal against Eastleigh so hard he literally lost his head, ripping it off and volleying it down the touchline in wild scenes. More, please.
6) Zenga leads Wolves into battle
Seven days before the start of the season and Walter Zenga replaces Kenny Jackett as manager. Now keep an eye on the ins and outs at Molineux: the new Chinese owner, Fosun Group, has links with the super-agent Jorge Mendes. Success or failure this season may depend on how strong those ties are. When the deal was brokered Fosun agreed to invest £20m-£30m over two seasons. But perhaps it is more realistic to expect a number of talented, young loan players from the Mendes stable to help spur an outside push for promotion.
7) ‘Egg and cress’ on Canaries’ menu
When Norwich released their third kit it was variously described as “genius”, a “monstrosity”, “bird poo”, “inspired” and “looking like bus seats”. Divisive, to say the least. But there is no question that it got people talking about the club. The kit is a nod to the “egg and cress” home strip worn by the class of 1992-93 who challenged for the title. A second-tier title tilt would be most welcome this season if Alex Neil’s side are to maintain their status as the ultimate yo-yo club.
8) Xia’s Villa in rude health?
There was fear among Aston Villa’s dazed fans when the new owner, Tony Xia, spoke about rebranding the stadium Lotus Villa Park after the health products he hoped to sell there. But supporters have warmed to Xia over the summer. The Chinese owner has been nothing if not direct, cajoling fans on Twitter to renew their season tickets and promising a revolution and a ruthless trimming of the squad. A likeable owner at Villa? That is one improvement already.